Capitol Hill violence stokes ire at Facebook, Google and Twitter

Big Tech could face stricter regulation due to backlash over the failed insurrection fueled by Trump's tweets.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read
The dome of the US Capitol

The US Capitol two days after a pro-Trump mob broke in.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Tech giants Facebook, Google and Twitter will likely face increased scrutiny for their role in the buildup to the deadly riots at the US Capitol this week. With Democrats about to control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, there's renewed focus on regulation to tamp down the social media platforms' outsized reach and influence. 

The violence that erupted Wednesday afternoon when a mob of President Donald Trump's supporters stormed the US Capitol during the vote to confirm President-elect Joe Biden's victory has spurred some Democrats to call for stricter regulations on the companies. Twitter and Facebook each suspended Trump's accounts for incendiary comments following the riots, but some lawmakers said it was too little, too late. 

"They bear major responsibility for ignoring repeated red flags and demands for fixes," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, told The Washington Post on Friday. The senator said that companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter should have acted more quickly as the riots unfolded rather than wait "until well after there was blood and glass in the halls of the Capitol."

He added that "these events will renew and refocus the need for Congress to reform big tech."

On Friday evening, Twitter took the unusual step of permanently suspending Trump's account, stating that the "risk of further incitement of violence" was too great. The company also on Friday blocked the accounts of retired Gen. Michael Flynn, lawyer Sidney Powell and a host of supporters of the bogus QAnon conspiracy theory embraced by many of Trump's most avid fans. 

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All of this comes after Democrats won control of the Senate with victories in the two runoff elections in Georgia on Tuesday. Raphael Warnock won his race against Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Jon Ossoff defeated Republican Sen. David Purdue to give the Senate a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans. The new senators will be sworn in later this month, following the election's certification. With Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote in the chamber, Democrats will have more power to push legislation through committees in the Senate and get it to the floor for a vote. 

This will give Democrats greater influence to push their tech agendas, which already included skepticism about the size and power of big tech companies. The terrifying scenes at the Capitol on Wednesday and the frustration over the role that social media has played in amplifying violence and misinformation will likely spur lawmakers, especially Democrats into action.

"The scrutiny that already existed is now being multiplied 10 times," said Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy.

Section 230 

Lawmakers from both parties have called for changes to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which shields social media companies from lawsuits over the content their users post on their platforms. The rampant flow of hate speech and disinformation on social media, including interference by foreign countries in the 2020 US presidential election and Trump's incendiary posts perpetuating lies about the results of the election, have troubled the Democrats. And they've been looking to put limits on these protections to coax social media companies to more proactively take down false and inflammatory content. 

Republicans, led by Trump, have also been critical of Section 230, but for different reasons. They claim that their speech is being censored by social media sites. Earlier this year, Trump issued an executive order to get the Federal Communications Commission to examine how the agency could ensure that social media companies aren't censoring content on their sites. To bring more attention to the issue, Trump vetoed a critical defense funding bill because it didn't include a repeal of Section 230. (Congress overrode that veto.)

With Democrats about to control of the Senate and House, it's likely there will be a renewed push to try to hold the big social media platforms accountable when violent, threatening or other dangerous content is not removed. 

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., a Democrat from New Jersey who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said his committee is already "exploring ways to motivate all social media platforms to address disinformation, extremism and other online abuses."

He added in a statement: "The events of the last few days have only driven home how important and consequential it is that we all take this seriously." 

But the digital watchdog group Fight for the Future cautions lawmakers against overreaching when it comes to regulation around Section 230. 

"Some Democrats have already taken aim at 230, incorrectly believing that creating carve-outs in the law would incentivize web platforms to do a better job at moderating dangerous content and misinformation," Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, wrote Friday in an op-ed for FastCompany. "Section 230 is what's making it possible for these private companies to suspend Trump's account for speech that, while clearly dangerous, may not technically be illegal. And rushed changes to 230 would almost certainly do more harm than good."

The digital rights think tank TechFreedom also warns against Democrats going too far in their efforts to tamp down troubling content online.

"You can try to reform Section 230 all you want, but there's still the First Amendment of the Constitution that protects free speech," said Berin Szoka, president and founder of TechFreedom. "So whatever Democrats try to do in terms of getting platforms to deal with awful content, they'll have to be very narrow in their scope."

Szoka said that amending Section 230 alone will not make the problem go away. 

"The debate around Section 230 starts from the assumption that this problem is fixable," he said. "And it's not."

Still, the largest tech companies say they're onboard with some reforms to Section. 230 -- with some caveats. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in October, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that social media platforms "have responsibilities and it may make sense for there to be liability for some of the content that is on the platform." 

At the same hearing, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey suggested regulations that could require companies to make their moderation processes more transparent. He also said companies could develop clear ways for users to appeal their decisions on content moderation and give users more choices in how algorithms sort their content. 

Still, he cautioned lawmakers not to go too far in their reforms. And he warned that a heavy-handed approach could especially stifle smaller startups. 

"What we're most concerned with is making sure that we continue to enable new companies to contribute to the internet and to contribute to conversation," Dorsey said.

Antitrust and privacy regulation

Section 230 reform isn't the only regulation these companies should fear. Democratic lawmakers have also been looking into their data collection practices and how they use personal information of their users. Democrats in the House of Representatives concluded in a report last year that Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google have been engaging in anticompetitive practices and pose major antitrust concerns. 

Google and Facebook are already facing multiple lawsuits from federal and state law enforcement as well as regulatory agencies. And things could get worse for these companies as Democrats emboldened and angered by the insurrection on the Capitol may push for more aggressive enforcement and changes to antitrust laws that would make it easier for the federal government to bring cases against these companies or to even break them up. 

Sohn said she also expects Democrats to push privacy legislation that will limit what personal information these companies can collect on users and how they can use the data to train their algorithms to target individuals online. 

"The outsized influence these companies have is a function of them simply being too damn big and having too much personal information," she said.